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A Lion tragedy remembered: 50 years ago, Detroit player died during NFL game

It was 50 years ago when something took place on an NFL field that had never happened before and has not happened since.

A somber overcast hung over Detroit on that Sunday in October, perhaps an omen for the tragedy about to unfold.

Altoona’s Ed Flanagan, the Lions’ all-pro center, was joined in his annual dustup with linebacking great Dick Butkus of the Chicago Bears.

The Lions were down by five points with less than two minutes to go. Detroit marched into Bears’ territory when wide receiver Chuck Hughes snared a 32-yard pass from Greg Landry that moved the ball at the Chicago 37.

Hughes had just replaced Johnstown’s Larry Walton, who had twisted an ankle. Three plays later, Flanagan gasped as he watched a Landry aerial slip through the fingers of Hall of Famer Charlie Sanders in the end zone.

As he gathered his mates for fourth down, Flanagan noticed someone was missing from the huddle. He gazed downfield and saw Hughes lying face down and motionless in the muck of Tiger Stadium at the 20-yard line.

Butkus hovered over him and waved to the Detroit bench for medical assistance.

“We knew Chuck was hurt,” said Flanagan. “But nobody knew how bad. When they called for an ambulance, we knew it was serious.”

Hughes had suffered a heart attack.

After being tackled on the final catch of his career, a blood clot had dislodged and settled in the large artery leading to his heart, clogging blood flow.

Medical personnel hammered frantically on his chest trying to revive him.

His wife, Sharon, rode with him in the ambulance that took him to Henry Ford hospital. She watched his limp body turn blue before doctors told her what she already knew.

An autopsy revealed Hughes suffered advanced arteriosclerosis.

He was the only player ever to die on the field during an NFL game.

The raucous noise of Tiger Stadium dropped to a hushed whisper. Suddenly the outcome of the game did not matter anymore.

Like in a war, a fallen soldier had given his life for his comrades. It was one of the NFL’s darkest days.

Later that week, the entire Detroit team flew to San Antonio for the funeral.

Flanagan was a pallbearer.

“I never really knew Sharon that well,” Flanagan, who resides in Altoona, said. “I spoke with her briefly at the funeral. Neither one of us could fathom the sudden loss of such a great teammate and loving husband and father.”

Today, Sharon Hughes lives alone in the Texas hinterland, halfway between Houston and San Antonio.

After a second marriage failed, she worked as an elementary school librarian and is now retired. Her son, Shane, was 2 years old when his father died. He chose not to play football.

He now works as a retirement specialist for American Funds.

“Love never dies,” she spoke in a crispy Texas twang. “Sometimes I look at Shane and see Chuck’s crooked smile. It triggers a lot of memories.”

Texas titan Bum Phillips lassoed Hughes out of Abilene High School and hauled him off to Texas Western, where he once caught 17 passes for 349 yards in one game.

After being drafted by Philadelphia in 1967, he came to the Lions in 1970.

Teammates loved him.

“He was a joy to be around,” said defensive lineman Dan Goich. “He ran such precise routes.”

Linebacker Mike Lucci, with a flair for being brief and blunt, put it this way: “There are a lot of jerks in a locker room. Chuck was not one of them. He was a friend, a teammate, a member of the family.”

“Everybody loved Chuck,” Flanagan, 77, said. “We used to call him ‘Cowboy’ because he loved to shuffle around in those Texas clodhoppers.”

Today the Lions honor their beloved wide receiver with the Chuck Hughes Award, presented to the Lions’ player showing the most improvement from the previous year.

Asked if she wished her husband had never played football, Sharon Hughes drew a little pique.

“Oh no,” she said. “Chuck loved football. A man has to go where his heart leads him.”

Today the NFL has staffed and equipped its sideline to deal with any on-field emergency. And over the past few years, it has tried to legislate layers of safety into a game rooted in violence.

But in a case of cruel irony, on that tragic day in Detroit 50 years ago, there was nothing on the sideline or in the rulebook that could have saved the life of Chuck Hughes.

Bill Behe, an Altoona native, is a freelance writer based in Deerfield Beach, Fla.

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